Film Reviews: Opening This Week (April 22-26, 2013)

A critical digest of the week’s latest U.S. theatrical releases. Where applicable, links to longer reviews have been provided.

Pain & Gain
Distributor: Paramount

The large-scale destructiveness he has previously wrecked upon public and private property (including entire cities), Michael Bay visits on the human body in “Pain & Gain,” a pulverizing steroidal farce based on a bizarre-but-true kidnapping-and-murder case. Suggesting “Fargo” by way of the Three Stooges, Bay’s latest certainly proves that the “Transformers” auteur does have something more than jacked-up robots on his mind: specifically, jacked-up muscle men who will stop at nothing to achieve their deeply twisted notion of the American dream. With a very fine ensemble cast recruited to play an array of overtly despicable characters, this unapologetically vulgar, sometimes quite funny, often stomach-churning bacchanal will surely prove too extreme for great swathes of the multiplex crowd. But the marquee value of topliners Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, plus the pic’s reportedly modest $25 million pricetag, spells more gain than pain for Paramount’s box office pecs.
— Scott Foundas
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The Big Wedding
Distributor: Lionsgate
Let’s face it: “The Big Wedding” was more fun when it was fat and Greek — or loud and French, in the case of this adaptation of Gallic laffer “Mon frere se marie.” Writer-director Justin Zackham awkwardly blends feel-good pablum and raunchy sex jokes with the expected nuptial ingredients: something old (just look at that cast), something new (the groom is an adopted Colombian with three moms to manage), something borrowed (Nancy Meyers called, she wants her ideas back) and something blue (handjobs at the rehearsal dinner, etc.). It’s all catnip for the easily pleased, suggesting possible sleeper success amid louder early-summer studio fare.
— Peter Debruge
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Roadside Attractions
If “Take Shelter” embodied man’s crushing inability to cope with forces beyond his control, and “Shotgun Stories” examined a blood feud from the side of those in the wrong, then ascending writer-director Jeff Nichols blends the turbulent waters of the former with the dirty dealings of the latter to make “Mud.” Confidently expanding his inquiry into the essence of American masculinity, Nichols’ latest pressure-cooker pastoral conjures a wily figure of endangered Southern chivalry whose name is … you guessed it. Sturdy turns from Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon should support a wide release, curbed somewhat by pic’s unhurried pace and heavy regional temperament.
— Peter Debruge
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At Any Price - (USA) – New York Premiere, Narrative

At Any Price
Sony Classics
An artfully downbeat drama that proves easier to admire than to embrace, “At Any Price” offers another highly specific snapshot of a little-seen American subculture from writer-helmer Ramin Bahrani. Although it marks a major step up in budget and ambition, this resonant tale of an Iowa seed-farming family feels perfectly consistent with Bahrani’s shoestring fables (“Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo”), tilling unusually serious-minded soil even for a specialty release. Sincere and a bit studied, deeply felt yet designed to hold auds at a distance, the Sony Classics pickup will bank on favorable reviews and its name leads to cultivate a following.
— Justin Chang
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The Reluctant Fundamentalist
IFC Films
Mohsin Hamid’s slender, gemlike novel about a young Pakistani man’s post-9/11 identity crisis receives illuminating but heavy-handed screen treatment in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Despite a fine central performance by Riz Ahmed, a strong feel for cultural conflict and a lively evocation of contempo Lahore, Mira Nair’s latest immigrant saga saddles itself with a laborious narrative structure and half-baked thriller elements in a misguided attempt to open up what should be an intimate, introspective story. Combo of literary prestige and exotic appeal should give the picture a shot with arthouse audiences willing to prevail past that mouthful of a title.
— Justin Chang
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Paradise: Love
Strand Releasing
Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Love” is hardly the first film to explore the world of wealthy women and the young studs who service them; it’s not even the first to do it in a sex-tourism context, having been beaten to the punch by 2006′s “Heading South.” But it sure as hell is the dirtiest. Full of explicit sex that will restrict it to niche distribution in only the most tolerant territories, it challenges auds throughout on a multitude of levels. Repulsive and sublimely beautiful, arguably celebratory and damning of its characters, it’s hideous and masterful all at once, “Salo” with sunburn.
— Leslie Felperin
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The Weinstein Co.
The voyage of the Kon-Tiki was one of the greatest DIY experiments of the 20th century, proving that six young scientists, using primitive technology and sheer foolhardy belief, could traverse the Pacific Ocean on a homemade balsawood raft. In bringing the story to the screen, “Max Manus” directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg take the opposite approach, producing a visually impeccable, professionally crafted modern vessel that lacks any of the patched-together soul of its subject. The most expensive Norwegian film ever produced, “Kon-Tiki” has already proven a runaway success at the local B.O., though murkier waters await outside Scandinavia.
— Andrew Barker
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Arthur Newman
It’s hard to imagine that someone as dapper as Colin Firth has to go the lengths his character does in “Arthur Newman” to find himself. Most men buy a convertible to ease a midlife crisis, but Newman — aka Wallace Avery — doesn’t stop there. With a duffel bag full of cash and a fresh passport, he fakes his death and splits town under a new identity, meeting a woman (Emily Blunt) who shares his interest in personal reinvention. It’s easy to understand why the role-playing script attracted actors, though attracting auds to this patently phony character study will be far trickier.
— Peter Debruge
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Midnight’s Children
Distributor: Paladin/108 Media
At 149 minutes, Deepa Mehta’s sprawling, hyper-saturated adaptation of the epic Salman Rushdie classic “Midnight’s Children” feels like too much to take in all at once. Suspended somewhere between fable and history without even so much as a toe on the ground, the rich-cat/poor-cat tale of two Indian boys switched at birth begins long before conception and continues well after they meet, boiling over with passion every step of the way. Love it or hate it, Mehta’s overripe adaptation ensures a whimsical evening of cultural tourism for select specialty crowds, though its effect will have worn off by morning.
— Peter Debruge
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The Numbers Station
Image Entertainment
A charmingly analog premise involving old-fashioned radio transmissions and pen-and-paper code-breaking techniques does nothing to quicken the pulse in “The Numbers Station.” Sentencing a sad-looking John Cusack and a hard-working Malin Akerman to roughly 90 minutes of solitary confinement in a poorly lit underground bunker, this glum, juiceless spy thriller is a by-the-numbers affair indeed, unlikely to find an audience on any frequency. Already opened in a few overseas territories, the Image Entertainment release will transition quickly to VOD following a brief theatrical run.
— Justin Chang
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Drafthouse Films
A potent combo of hostage thriller and high-impact morality play, “Graceland” hardly puts a foot wrong for two-thirds of its lean running time. Though stumbling slightly in the home stretch, this yarn about the life-and-death choices facing the lowly employee of a corrupt Filipino politician reps an impressive sophomore feature by Filipino-American helmer Ron Morales (“Santa Mesa”).
— Richard Kuipers
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Sun Don’t Shine
Distributor: Factory 25
Busy indie thesp and sometime-producer Amy Seimetz’s feature debut as writer-director, “Sun Don’t Shine,” is an unconventional, unsettling couple-on-the-run tale set in the multihyphenate’s native Central Florida. More satisfying as an exercise in ambiguous atmosphere than as a fully realized narrative or character study, the film nevertheless picked up a 2012 SXSW special jury prize and Gotham nom for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.” Actually, it’ll be playing soon enough: Factory 25 plans simultaneous theatrical and digital release April 26. Prospects are modest, but the pic confirms Seimetz as a talent to watch, whatever hat she’s wearing.
— Dennis Harvey
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One Night Stand
Distributor: Incubation Films
Starting from scratch, a frazzled but talented group of artists must write, cast, direct, rehearse and present four 20-minute Broadway musicals in 24 hours in “One Night Stand,” a documentary that perfectly conveys the creative insanity unleashed in the process. Using split-screens and intercutting between the four different playlets at each stage of development, helmers Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton maintain nervous tension while revealing the quasi-miraculous process of building scripts, songs and characters out of thin air. This attractively lensed, dynamically edited NewFest award winner could fit an urban arthouse niche, and seems tailor-made for PBS or cable.
— Ronnie Scheib
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An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Variance Films
Terence Nance is a romantic: That much is clear from the title of his feature debut, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.” Every word and every frame contained within this charming cinematic ode furthers that impression, ultimately saying less about the real-world object of Nance’s affection, Namik Minter, than it does about its quixotic author, still naive enough to think making a film about his feelings can sway hers. While Minter remains resolutely unavailable, hip auds are likely to fall for this endearing love poem, which should travel well in arty alternative-programming circles.
— Peter Debruge
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